What is a Portable Document Format?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2019
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A portable document format (PDF) file is a type of computer file that was established to be an industry standard file type that can allow documents to be created and saved for use in a number of different real world applications. These types of files can often include both text and images, and can range from a single page of information or a simple file such as a brochure or flier, to documents that are hundreds of pages in length. A portable document format file functions independently of computer hardware or software applications, and allows different users to easily access information.

Released in 1993 by the Adobe® software company, the portable document format was not initially a massive success. It was limited by the fact that Adobe® owned and controlled the file format, and software used to create and access the files was typically quite expensive. Initial releases were also not very compatible with the Internet, and only in versions that followed was this corrected and the format rapidly grew in popularity. In 2008 the portable document format file type was made open source and has become an industry standard for numerous fields and businesses.


Often referred to simply as a PDF, a portable document format file can be created, viewed, edited, and utilized by a number of different programs. Some of the most common programs used in dealing with PDFs are those made and distributed by Adobe®, such as Acrobat®. While many of these programs can be fairly costly, even now that it is an open source file type, there are also free portable document format readers that allow users to easily open and view the materials in a PDF. These programs can also typically be used to print out a PDF document, though editing or creation is usually restricted in free software.

The portable document format was initially created as a simple way for a single file type to be able to be used for a number of different purposes. Since it is a standardized file type, it works regardless of operating system (OS) and hardware used in a computer. Someone can prepare a report, brochure, or contract as a PDF file and then be able to distribute that information and know that others will be able to view and access it easily without having to worry about compatibility. A portable document format file can easily display formatted text, two-dimensional images such as pictures, charts, and graphs, and can even display three-dimensional images when used with the proper importing tools.


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